BWW Reviews: THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE Sings Sweetly
The Voice of the Turtle
Written by John Van Druten, Directed by Carl Forsman; Scenic Designer, Bill Clarke; Costume Designer, Theresa Squire; Lighting Designer, Josh Bradford; Original Sound Design, Stefan Jacobs; Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe
CAST: Hanley Smith, Sally Middleton; Megan Byrne, Olive Lashbrooke; William Connell, Bill Page
Performances through January 29 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office: 978-543-4MRT (4678) or www.merrimackrep.org
A heartwarming, feel-good play about life and love in a simpler time turns out to be just the ticket for a cold, blustery weekend in mid-January. John Van Druten’s The Voice of the Turtle at Merrimack Repertory Theatre is a 1943 romantic comedy set in wartime Manhattan that reminds us how sweet it can be to live in the moment and to grab the brass ring when it comes our way. Ars longa, vita brevis.
As spring and its accompanying flowers bloom in New York City, so too does the romance between young actress Sally Middleton (Hanley Smith) and Army Sergeant Bill Page (William Connell). Although both have determined to swear off romance after surviving broken hearts, they find themselves falling in love as victims of happy circumstance. On leave in the city, Bill is planning to spend the weekend with Sally’s older and wiser friend Olive Lashbrooke (Megan Byrne) until she stands him up for a better offer. With no plans and no hotel rooms to be found, Bill ends up camping on Sally’s sofa and taking her to dinner as recompense.
It comes as no surprise that Sally and Bill hit it off, but this is not an open and shut case of guessing what’s for dessert. There’s a delicious, old-fashioned politeness to their whirlwind courtship, sprinkled with Sally’s occasional bouts of guilt over “stealing” Olive’s beau. Bill takes a more worldly view of the situation, refusing to be held captive to any such designation. However, they both struggle to escape tugs on their heartstrings by the memories of past loves before they can appreciate and seize the chance for happiness.
Sally’s farm girl innocence and Bill’s romantic sentimentality are a lovely combination that makes us root for them as a couple. Olive is a hard-boiled, Eve Arden type (I’m sure it was no coincidence that Eve Arden played the character in the 1947 movie) who makes no apologies for her two-fisted guy grabbing when she tells Sally that she can afford to be pickier because she’s pretty. Although they know each other from the theater world, it requires some extra suspension of disbelief to see the two women as friends.
The Voice of the Turtle is a product of its era, so there are any number of now-quaint cultural references and relics of language usage (Bill actually says “swell” on a couple of occasions and “gay” reverts to its dated meaning). In a departure from the prevalence of one-act plays of today, this one is presented in three acts with two intermissions, allowing us to linger with the characters and savor the developing story in unhurried fashion. It took me a little while to settle into the deliberate pacing before I could appreciate that it actually helps to illuminate the way that Sally and Bill dance cautiously around their budding romance. Smith and Connell partner with ease and share a high likeability quotient. She has a little Mary Richards quality, but together they are in sync like Fred and Ginger. Given that Olive provides the conflict, Byrne is the heavy, yet manages to evoke some audience sympathy. She shows many sides of her character, from friendly confidante to cooing flirt to wounded vixen.
Director Carl Forsman guides the production with a steady hand and a love for the play that shows in the nuanced performances of his cast. All three give realistic portrayals and appear at home in the 1940’s costumes by Theresa Squire and set by Bill Clarke. Josh Bradford marks day and night with gradation of lighting, including changes in the New York City skyline outside Sally’s apartment window. Wonderful period music underplays scene shifts and permeates the auditorium before the show and during the intermissions, thanks to Stefan Jacobs’ sound design.
The original production of The Voice of the Turtle, directed by the playwright, ran for 1,557 performances from 1943 through 1947, the ninth-longest running play in Broadway history. For his New York theater, Keen Company, Forsman directed a revival in 2001 which took on greater resonance and import when the run was interrupted by the events of September 11th. When they reopened on September 14th, their theater on 24th Street had smoke in it, which served as a not so subtle reminder of the gravity of World War II and what the soldier in the play was facing. We shouldn’t need wars and tragic national catastrophes to remind us of what’s really important, but we sometimes forget. Fortunately, good theater can also remind us and thoughtfully entertain at the same time.
Photo credit: Megan Moore (William Connell, Hanley Smith)